Wednesday, September 5, 2007
THE MOVING FINGER WRITES...
The moving finger writes...(Edward Fitzgerald)
Enoch walked with God.
Moses, whom the Lord knew face to face.
Israel served the Lord all the days of Joshua, and all the days of the elders who outlived Joshua.
Saul and Jonathan, beloved and lovely!
Jeroboam the son of Nebat, who made Israel to sin. Before him (Josiah) there was no king like him, who turned to the Lord with all his heart and with all his soul and with all his might... nor did any like him arise after him. Johoram... departed with no one's regret.
Abraham, my friend.
Abraham... was called the friend of God.
Antipas my witness, my faithful one.
(Genesis 5:24; Deuteronomy 34:10; Joshua 24:31; 2 Samuel 1:23; 1 Kings 22:52; 2 Kings 23:25; 2 Chronicles 21:16,20; Isaiah 41:8; James 2:23; Revelation 2:13 -- all RSV)
Browsing through cemeteries and studying the epitaphs on tombstones might be considered a rather morbid pursuit, although occasionally one might discover a delightful example of unconscious humour, such as this inscription in an English churchyard:
Erected to the memory of Adam Abrahams, drowned in the Severn by a few affectionate friends.
Here the bad grammar occasions the humour, whereas the head-board of a grave in the Sparta Diggings, California, compounds bad spelling and grammar with extraneous detail:
In memory OV
JOHN SMITH, who met
wierlent death neer this spot,
18 hundred and 40 too. He was shot
by his own pistill;
It was not one of the new kind,
but a old-fashioned
brass barrel, and of such is the
Kingdom of heaven.
More often than not there is a genuine appreciation of the person who has died, sometimes shading out into extravagance, although, even here, a bitterness developed through long experience sometimes emerges, as in this epitaph at Grey Friars, Edinburgh, Scotland:
Here snug in grave my wife doth lie; Now she's at rest and so am I.
Very rarely there may be found an objective thought which
rises above fulsome praise or barbed criticism. In Caermathern Churchyard, in Wales, for instance, there is an inscription:
Praises on tombs are trifles vainly spent.
A man's good name is his best monument.
It is the duty of man so to live that he leaves behind a pleasant memory of himself.
This is important. What is said of us when we depart this life reflects the overall impression for good or evil which we make upon others by our multiplied words and actions during our lifetime. But the title of this meditation hints at a higher, more comprehensive and final judgment:
The Moving Finger writes; and having writ,
Moves on; not all thy Piety nor Wit
Shall lure it back to cancel half a line,
Nor all thy Tears wash out a Word of it.
Edward Fitzgerald, Omar Khayyam
Scripture underlines and personalises this weightier responsibility: Let your light so shine before men, that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven.
Man's judgment is necessarily imperfect, subjective and prone to change, but God's verdict on our lives is absolute and unchangeable. Hence the challenge which comes to us as we meditate upon the many 'epitaphs' in the Bible. Granted that the foundation of our acceptance by God is our faith in the completed work of his Son, Jesus Christ, what are we building, day by day, on that foundation?.
For no other foundation can one lay than that which is laid, which is Jesus Christ. Now if any one builds on the foundation with gold, silver, precious stones, wood, hay stubble -- each man's work will become manifest; for the Day will disclose it, because it will be revealed with fire, and the fire will test what sort of work each has done.
1. Corinthians 3:11-13
The divine testimony is that Enoch, Moses and Abraham had the closest possible relationship with God; that Joshua's influence was so decisive that it influenced the succeeding generation, as well as his own; that Josiah was unique amongst the kings of Judah for his unswerving commitment and loyalty to God. David's reference to Saul might seem gratuitous but there was no doubt about the loveliness and pleasantness in Jonathan's life.
In stark contrast, who would welcome a verdict like that on Jeroboam, the first king of the northern tribes after the disruption which followed the death of Solomon,/. Almost every subsequent reference concerning him highlights the fact that he was largely responsible for leading Israel into sin. Perhaps even sadder is the verdict on King Jehoram, who 'departed with no one's regret', which is paralleled in an inscription on a tombstone at Painswick, in Gloucestershire, England:
My wife is dead, and here she lies;
Nobody laughs and nobody cries;
Where she is gone to, or how she fares,
Nobody knows, and nobody cares.
Jehoram lived unloved and died unlamented; there was nothing in his life which invited respect or remembrance.
What will others think and say of me? What will God's all-comprehending and absolutely just verdict be? I am reminded that the unit is not the life but the moment; that the ultimate judgment will be based upon the multitude of impulses, thoughts, words and actions that make up each day; that there is a now when I can resolutely set my will to honour God by my filial love, loyalty and total obedience; a now when I can serve my fellows with a sacrificial love and commitment which mirrors Christ's own self-giving. The children's hymn expresses these truths simply, yet meaningfully:
Growing every day in awe,
For thy Name is holy;
Learning every day to love
With a love more lowly.
Walking every day more close
To our Elder Brother;
Growing every day more true
Unto one another.
Leaving every day behind
Something which might hinder;
Running swifter every day,
Growing purer, kinder.
Lord, so pray we every day
Hear us in thy pity;
That we enter in at last
To the Holy City.
God's 'Well done, good and faithful servant' will be given not for isolated flashes of brilliance or occasional successes, however stupendous, but for that daily constancy of life which results in steadily increasing Christ-likeness. This is possible for the humble, one-talented believer as well as for the multi-talented. At Ataikola, in what is now Bangladesh, there is a monument erected to the memory of a pioneer Baptist missionary, Miss Ellen Arnold, with an inscription which sums up this attitude:
Jesus said, 'I am the Way, the Truth and the Life'.
Miss Arnold walked that Way, taught that Truth and lived
Father, help me to realise that this day brings with it priceless opportunities of fellowship with yourself of growing in grace and in the knowledge of your Son and of coming alongside other people to help, encourage and strengthen them.
Grant me the grace to open myself completely to your Holy Spirit, that he may lead me into all truth; the truth of your Word and the truth of a daily life which glorifies you. May no one be caused to stumble by any word or action of mine; may no-one be the poorer because of my neglect or thoughtlessness. Touch my mind so that I may think for you; touch my eyes that I may see my fellows as you see them; touch my lips so that my words might comfort, encourage or rebuke as necessary; touch my hands so that all tasks might be performed well; touch my heart, my innermost being, so that your love might control me.
Help me, dear Lord, so to live this day that with truth I may be able to say, with the One whom I seek to follow, '1 have finished the work you gave me to do'. And guard me from the spiritual pride which can so easily follow work done successfully in your name and strength, for to you I owe everything, including the will to desire and the strength to achieve.
Lord, go with us into this day and grant us, moment by moment, the enjoyment of your presence, a sensitivity to the promptings of your Holy Spirit and an awareness of the rich provision you have made for us to live victoriously, this and every day. Amen.
Still Waters, Deep Waters ed. By Rowland Croucher pp. 251-256